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Photo: Akhil DT
“Censorship is anti-creation” … A quote from a lecture by Salman Rushdie, as seen on a StickLit poster on a Bangalore cement pillar. StickLit brings literature to the people using stickers.

In the New York metro and the T in Boston, I’ve enjoyed the poetry posters that give riders something more meaningful to read and ponder than ads. Now I’m learning about a new poetry-for-the-people effort in India. It uses poetry stickers in both English and a local language in site-specific venues.

Priyanka Sacheti reports at the Guardian, “There are thousands of street food carts in New Delhi. But only one has the opening lines of Riyazat Ullah Khan’s poem ‘Wazoodiyat’ on the side:

Where can the pauper keep his pain of existence?
He has no container but a heart.

“The sticker bearing the couplet is from a campaign called StickLit, which seeks to make literature more accessible by placing quotes in public spaces.

“Nidhin Kundathil and Manoj Pandey had the idea for the project while contemplating the advertisements, posters and billboards that are consumed almost subliminally on Indian streets.

“ ‘We thought of turning this [visual] experience on its head to create a completely new and refreshing alternative for passersby – [one] which was not just selling something, for a change,’ says Pandey, 32, a freelance writer in Darjeeling.

“The idea subsequently evolved: they would make what they call the world’s largest library – ‘the largest repository of good literature in public spaces: a library that’s free for all.’ So they hit the streets, putting up free-format stickers, posters and wall murals. …

“After starting in Bengaluru and Delhi in 2017, the project has spread all over India, with volunteers in various cities taking it up. The stickers are available from the StickLit website and the founders encourage people to download them and use them freely. …

“The founders encourage placement based on context: poems in railway stations, for example, when people have longer to contemplate them; shorter quotes and excerpts for busy streets. They also use place-specific languages – Hindi in Delhi, or Kannada in Bengaluru – alongside English. There are plans to share prison poetry in prisons as well.

“Kundathil, 33, a Bengaluru-based graphic artist, handles the design. He says he deliberately chooses bold, brightly-coloured fonts and minimal design elements in order not just to attract attention but to ensure that attention remains focused on the text.

“The list of authors chosen is inclusive and diverse, from Rushdie and former government minister Shashi Tharoor to newer voices such as Nishita Gill and Nikhil Mhaisne. They have also shared works of Kannada literary greats across Bengaluru. ‘A lot of our material consists of work by aspiring writers as well,’ Pandey says, adding that the project is open to submissions.

“ ‘We like to believe that people, especially the young, are drawn towards StickLit as they are not cynical,’ Pandey says. ‘They still believe that a pen can change the world. And we’d like to foster that.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Hayley Madden/Spread the Word
Theresa Lola is the new young people’s laureate for London. Her writing has been described as “breathtakingly beautiful.”

Poetry will survive at least one more generation, judging from the numbers of young people who are enjoying it and even buying poetry books.

Sanjana Varghese writes at the Guardian, “Poet Theresa Lola, named the new young people’s laureate for London, says she hopes to use the role to help the capital’s demonised youth to find confidence in their voice.

“The 24-year-old British-Nigerian from Bromley, south London, studied accounting and finance at university before turning to poetry. She is the third young people’s laureate, after Caleb Femi and Momtaza Mehri. The joint winner of the 2018 Brunel international African poetry prize, her debut collection, In Search of Equilibrium, was published in February, and was described as breathtaking by author Bernardine Evaristo. …

“ ‘It’s easy for us to demonise young people and social media,’ [Lola] said. ‘Poetry was instrumental for me, to find my voice and to find my confidence, and hopefully it can do that for other young people too.’

“Sales of poetry books have increased over the last three years, hitting an all-time high of [$15 million in the UK] in 2018. Two-thirds of poetry buyers are now under 34, with teenage girls and young women identified as the biggest consumers last year. …

“ ‘A lot of young people are seeing that yes, [poetry] is reflective of their experiences and upbringing. They’re getting to understand that [it] exists anywhere. I’m hoping to meet so many different young people and help them see the poetry in their lives,’ Lola said.

“ ‘London is so important to me, especially for my craft – it’s such an eclectic city. It inspires me to be a form of myself in every poem.’ …

“The young people’s laureate title was established by writer development agency Spread the Word in 2016. Lola … will work on four residencies around London and a PoetryLab, which aims to nurture talented young poets in the capital.

“Spread the Word director Ruth Harrison said: ‘At a time of political uncertainty, when young people’s lives, concerns and aspirations are often ignored and dismissed, it is vital that their voices are heard by those in power.’ ” More.

My grandchildren are big on finding words that rhyme. Not that a poem has to rhyme, but sometimes that’s where nascent poets get hooked. I have made up some silly poems with the kids while driving home from school, and I expect they’ll always get a kick out of making words go together in surprising ways.

 

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Photo: UNHCR
Shukria Rezaei, an Afghan Hazara refugee in the UK, with Kate Clanchy, writer-in-residence at Shukria’s school.

Years ago, my husband’s company ordered his department to move to Dallas from upstate New York. We decided not to go, which was a big no-no in the corporate world at that time. Other wives got a laugh when I said, “I don’t transplant well.” That’s probably true of many people who get used to their place. When I think of the thousands of migrants leaving home now, I know they are not doing it just for fun but because there is no other choice. Most people love their home.

The young Afghan refugee in this story longs to go home someday. In the meantime, she is learning all she can, including how to write poetry in a new language.

Caroline Brothers reports for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that a few years ago “no one, not her family, her teachers, nor any of her 900 schoolmates, was more surprised than Shukria Rezaei herself, when she was judged the best poet in her year. A shy, 15-year-old Afghan girl, who was still grappling with an adopted language.

“Oxford Spires Academy, a secondary school whose catchment area includes deprived localities, had just run a poetry competition to discover what talent might lie hidden in a student body speaking 54 different languages.

“ ‘Everyone was shocked, even myself,’ said Rezaei, now 20 and a scholarship student at the University of London, recalling the moment when Kate Clanchy, the school’s writer-in-residence and the competition’s judge, announced Rezaei had won first prize.

“Less than a year before, Rezaei and her mother – Hazara refugees – had arrived in Oxford from Quetta, Pakistan, which hosts a large population of displaced Afghans. The two were reunited in 2011 with Rezaei’s father, who had been granted asylum in the UK, after a three-year separation.

“Rezaei, for her part, was still struggling to master a language whose barest bones she had learnt at Afghan primary school and refugee school in Pakistan. As a child in the Afghan province of Ghazni, she awoke to the tap-tap of sheep trooping past on their way to the fields; a few hours later, she would set off through the mountains with a dozen other girls.

“ ‘School was two mountains away, and it snowed a lot,’ Rezaei told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. ‘We went on a rocky mountain path and it took an hour and a half.’ …

“In England, in the thick purple jumper of a strange school uniform, she was struggling to keep up.

“ ‘I could only understand what was written down,’ Rezaei said of her first year. She survived, she said, by reading rather than speaking, copying everything she saw on the blackboard: ‘I just did as much as I could.’

“With the poetry prize, however, things shifted. From feeling invisible, Rezaei suddenly had an identity within the school. Clanchy, meanwhile, invited her to join a poetry group she had formed on a hunch that the quiet foreign girls at Oxford Spires might in fact have something to say.

” ‘At the beginning, I couldn’t talk,’ said Rezaei. But seated among 15 or 20 aspiring poets, she began to express herself. …

“Since then, Rezaei has had work published in Oxford Poetry, the emblematic literary journal that has showcased many of the country’s greats. She will be included in an anthology, England, to be published by Picador in June; one of her poems, ‘Homesick,’ has already been translated into German. …

“Like many children of refugees, Rezaei is acutely aware of how much hope her parents have invested in her. Even in the bleakest moments, amid profound dislocation, giving up was never an option, either for them or for her. …

“Rezaei is finding her feet in London, another major adjustment after Quetta and Oxford. Having won a scholarship to Goldsmiths College, she is studying politics, philosophy and economics, which she hopes to convert into a law degree.

“She still misses aspects of her Afghan childhood, but for now her hopes are firmly focused on England. She recently passed her driving test, and is exploring the creative writing scene.

“ ‘Afghanistan is still dear to my heart,’ she said, ‘but I have a lot more to achieve here before I go back.’ ”

Here is one poem.

I want a poem
with the texture of a colander
on the pastry

A verse
of pastry so rich
it leaves gleam on your fingertips

A poem
that stings like the splash of boiling oil
as you drop the pastry in …

I’d really like to copy the whole lovely thing, but you better click through to read it.

Hat tip: Beautiful Day on Instagram.

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Photo: New York Times
Fisher poet Dave Densmore, on his boat, wrote his first poem as a joke in the 1970s. Now he studies writing.

Jobs like commercial fishing can provide a lot of of time to think, and it’s amazing how thinking often leads to poetry. That is also true of experiences that are so hard to capture they must be addressed obliquely.

Poetic storytelling is alive and well in the fishing community, it seems. Consider this transcript of a National Public Radio (NPR) report, in which Melanie Sevcenko describes an annual fisher poet event.

“MELANIE SEVCENKO: Moe Bowstern named herself after the front and back end of a ship. She calls herself a fishing woman. And for her, writing poetry comes with the job.

“MOE BOWSTERN: Well, I mean, have you ever been fishing? …  It’s unbelievably boring. And so you just have to think of something else to do.

“SEVCENKO: Now retired from commercial fishing, Bowstern is one of dozens of fisher poets who have been meeting for their annual gathering in a Astoria, Ore. During the last weekend of February, the far-flung fisher people interpret the commercial fishing industry in prose, poetry and song. …

“Bowstern started fishing in Kodiak, Alaska, in the mid-’80s when women on commercial boats were scarce. Her zine shares a name with a popular brand of deck boots, XTRATUF. This piece is called ‘Things That Will Be Difficult.’

“BOWSTERN: ‘It will be hard, if you are a man, to understand why your female crewmate, who started out so friendly, is so silent now when you are only trying to help. It will be hard if you are a woman to go’ …

“SEVCENKO: The poetry onstage at FisherPoets touches on what Bowstern calls an incredibly difficult life.

“BOWSTERN: Not just because of the rigors of the actual physical experience of the life, but it’s just, how can you be a fisherman at a time of climate change? And, like, where are you going to position yourself with resource extraction?

“SEVCENKO: That’s something John Copp has written about. For 20 years, he ran operations in Bristol Bay in the Bering Sea. Multinational corporations want to mine gold and copper from the area nearby and have been angling to do so for years. His poem ‘Tsunami’ is inspired by his opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine. … Many commercial fishermen have been against the Pebble Mine because of the damage it could do to the biggest salmon run on the planet. Copp is retired and lives in Oregon now. But he’s still inspired to write by the natural beauty of Alaska. …

“This weekend, once again, the fisher poets will do what they’ve done for more than two decades — gather on piers, in cafes and in theaters to perform their poetry for grateful audiences in this seaside town. Bowstern feels lucky that people who’ve never even been fishing want to hear their stories.

“BOWSTERN: We’re participating in two traditions that have been going on. Like, storytelling is probably only a little bit older than fishing, you know? So we get to tell stories in our special, weird language. And people just can’t get enough of it.”

The NPR transcript is here, and there’s another good article at the New York Times, here. If you know people who fish and also write poetry, have them check out the Fisher Poets website, here.

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Photo: Lee Allen Photography
Dispensing poetry on prescription: Shropshire’s Emergency Poet, Deborah Alma.

Sometimes poetry can play a role in emotional healing. I think that’s because ordinary sentences often miss the mark but poetry is fluid enough to go where it’s needed. In the UK, a Shropshire poet is putting her faith in this art and opening a “poetry pharmacy.” She notes that a recent report shows “poetry sales were up by more than 12% in 2018, driven largely by younger buyers.”

Alison Flood writes at the Guardian, “Following in the hallowed footsteps of Milton, who wrote in 1671 that ‘apt words have power to swage / The tumours of a troubled mind / And are as balm to festered wounds,’ the poet Deborah Alma is preparing to open the UK’s first poetry pharmacy. Here, instead of sleeping pills and multivitamins, customers will be offered prescriptions of Derek Walcott and Elizabeth Bishop.

“Alma, who as the ‘Emergency Poet’ has prescribed poems as cures from the back of a 1970s ambulance for the last six years, is now setting up a permanent outlet in a shop at Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire. An old Edwardian ironmonger’s, it still has the original fixtures and fittings, and, together with her partner, the TS Eliot prize-shortlisted poet James Sheard, Alma is preparing to turn it into a haven ‘to help ease a variety of maladies with the soothing therapy of Poetry.’

“Dressed in a white coat and stethoscope, Alma says she was invited to appear as the Emergency Poet at ‘schools, hospitals and festivals all over the place, but I’m a middle-aged woman and I’m getting a bit old for driving around.’ …

“The [pharmacy’s] mortgage was approved [in January], and Alma is buzzing with plans for how the shop will be divided like a pharmacy ‘into areas for particular ailments.’ … The sections will be set up along the lines of a poetry anthology she edited in 2016, The Everyday Poet, which was split into poems ‘addressing areas of emotional need’ such as love, ageing, grief and hope. …

“ ‘I think probably more than any other art it speaks directly as though from one person to another,’ says Alma, who published her own first collection, Dirty Laundry, last year. ‘It’s intimate and it’s empathetic. It can be a prayer or a curse, or something just to hang on to.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here. I’m glad to know something more about Shropshire poets beyond “The Shropshire Lad,” which I know only by reputation.

Hat tip: Wisconsin poet Ronnie Hess on Facebook.

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janae

Photo: Poetry Out Loud
Janae Claxton of South Carolina is the 2018 Poetry Out Loud National Champion. A new survey suggests interest in poetry is growing in the United States.

I’ve been thinking about poetry lately. The team of family and friends keeping my sister company before her surgery was made up of people who enjoy poetry — reading, listening, memorizing, or reciting poetry. My sister herself knows a lot of poems by heart, and we all had fun quoting what we knew and looking up favorites on the web. Some of the poems were so moving, we had to stop and recover ourselves.

Poetry is the right thing in difficult times. And it seems my sister’s hospital team is not alone in feeling a need for it. A new survey shows that poetry reading is up nationwide.

Sunil Iyengar, National Endowment for the Arts director of research and analysis, writes at the NEA Art Works Blog, “Poetry reading in the United States has increased since five years previously. Nearly 12 percent (11.7 percent) of adults read poetry in the last year, according to new data from the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). That’s 28 million adults. As a share of the total U.S. adult population, this poetry readership is the highest on record over a 15-year period of conducting the SPPA, a research partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau. …

“Growth in poetry reading is seen across most demographic sub-groups (e.g., gender, age, race/ethnicity, and education level), but here are highlights:

• Young adults have increased their lead, among all age groups, as poetry readers. Among 18-24-year-olds, the poetry-reading rate more than doubled, to 17.5 percent in 2017, up from 8.2 percent in 2012. Among all age groups, 25-34-year-olds had the next highest rate of poetry-reading: 12.3 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 2012.

• Women also showed notable gains (14.5 percent in 2017, up from 8.0 percent in 2012). As in prior years, women accounted for more than 60 percent of all poetry-readers. Men’s poetry-reading rate grew from 5.2 percent in 2012 to 8.7 percent in 2017.

• Among racial/ethnic subgroups, African Americans (15.3 percent in 2017 up from 6.9 percent in 2012), Asian Americans (12.6 percent, up from 4.8 percent), and other non-white, non-Hispanic groups (13.5 percent, up from 4.7 percent) now read poetry at the highest rates. Furthermore, poetry-reading increased among Hispanics (9.7 percent, up from 4.9 percent) and non-Hispanic whites (11.4 percent, up from 7.2 percent).

• Adults with only some college education showed sharp increases in their poetry-reading rates.  Of those who attended but did not graduate from college, 13.0 percent read poetry in 2017, up from 6.6 percent in 2012. College graduates (15.2 percent, up from 8.7 percent) and adults with graduate or professional degrees (19.7 percent, up from 12.5 percent) also saw sizeable increases.

• Urban and rural residents read poetry at a comparable rate (11.8 percent of urban/metro and 11.2 percent of rural/non-metro residents). …

“More than 300,000 students from more than 2,300 high schools around the country participate in [the Poetry Out Loud] recitation competition. Last April, champions from 53 states and territories competed in the National Finals here in D.C. This year’s winner was high school senior Janae Claxton from the First Baptist School of Charleston, South Carolina. …

“Each year, the NEA Big Read supports community reading programs in approximately 75 communities nationwide, and includes poetry books such as [Muscogee (Creek) member] Joy Harjo’s How We Became Human and Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke in the available titles.”

Iyengar speculates that use of social media to promote poetry may explain part of the expanded interest. As for me, I think the obliqueness and beauty of good poetry help people to get their heads around big, impossible things.

More.

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Thank you for all the lovely things you have written. My sister has a long road ahead, but she is a strong person and is facing it well. Ms. Mighty Mouse.

I actually saw a Ms. Mighty Mouse sculpture on my walk and took a picture. Unlike her, my sister has both her arms and all her faculties.

I liked the Alice Walker poetry mural I saw, too, and will repeat the poem here as my sister loves poetry. In fact, the day before her surgery, the four of us who were gathered in her room had the best time quoting poetry at each other. It was a lot of fun.

The Nature of This Flower Is to Bloom

Rebellious. Living.
Against the Elemental Crush.
A Song of Color
Blooming
For Deserving Eyes.
Blooming Gloriously
For its Self.

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